Listen: as a four-year-old, you can’t deduct and reason your way out of the mystery of Who Is Santa Claus.
What my sister and I did was sneak out after bedtime to hide beneath the couch in the living room. This was base housing in Tacoma, row after row of identical ranchers. A simple couch in the simple house of an enlisted man.
We waited until a tall man, a giant to us, came into the room and put present after present under the tree.
And as a kid who didn’t talk except to Pam—my sister, interpreter and guardian—this was a brave and grand adventure. I used to stand in front of the fridge until Pam came along, opened it and took out the food I pointed at, with petrified carrots under my pillow as a long-term food supply in case something happened to her.
Hiding under that couch, waiting to learn the identity of Santa Claus, was one of my first memories.
Because hiding under that couch was how the huge mystery got solved: Santa Claus was our father.
This only added to his mythical status to me. He wore an Air Force uniform and disappeared at work for long shifts. All we knew was he worked on F-15’s and other military jets, like the bombers his father flew during World War II and the Cold War.
That he rode motorcycles, could pick us up like we weighed nothing, ate Daddy Go to Work Sandwiches and seemed to know everything.
When the military transferred us to Germany, and then the Netherlands, he drove us on weekends in a white VW van with a kitchen sink and room to sleep. We visited castles all over and saw a lot of Europe, with my sister taking the wrong train once and heading to east Berlin before the Wall fell.
We had a dog that was already trained, so you had to speak Dutch to it to have it sit, and base housing in the Netherlands was unlike any military housing on the planet, with nice brick houses that weren’t boring boxes thrown up by the lowest bidder.
It was an adventure, and I can still recognize F-15’s and F/B-111’s by their profile in the sky or the sound they make roaring overhead. I remember watching second-run movies for a dollar at base theaters, mowing lawns to make money and going to see Star Wars or Indiana Jones once a day all summer. Why not? It was a buck.
I remember my father telling me crazy GI stories, like the one where enlisted men would always drive across Lake Champlain during winter when you could go from base to Burlington, Vermont, except people always had to push it, every year, and drive when the ice was too thin. There’s a fair number of pickup trucks that fell through the ice.
This is the father I knew growing up. The one my wife and son never got to see.
By the time my wife met him when we were in college, he was a disabled vet, long retired, and already sick–diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school.
Our son didn’t see him until ten years after we got married.
So this isn’t an obituary, which I find dry and boring. I wrote plenty of those as a journalist. Obituaries are usually a series of dates and places, recitations of facts that really don’t tell you anything about the real person.
And I’ve seen enough people die by now to have some thoughts about it beyond the raw emotion of grief.
I went through all of my grandparents dying. Some fast, some slow. Losing my grandfather was especially hard, and I’m bothered by the fact that I can’t remember if he flew B-24’s or B-17’s in the Pacific, though I know he flew B-52’s for decades after the war and once had a heart attack mid-flight, with a load of nuclear bombs, and landed on a dry salt lake in Utah.
Robin Boyes, my mentor on speechwriting and rhetoric, found alone in his home, every room filled with books. My boss, Jim Richards, dying unexpectedly last year, right before his son’s wedding.
And I believe two things: that everybody has a list like that, a list that keeps growing year by year, and that your list never gets lighter or easier.
You don’t just mourn the inability to see them again, to talk or laugh or go on a trip. It’s the loss of everything they could ever do, or should have done, with or without you.
I miss the stories my father told about growing up on the farm, like the cow named Stupid that his brother rode, pulling its tail to go left or right and straight up to stop, which worked fine until the cow ran too fast and pulling up made it stop too fast and my uncle flew into a pile of manure.
When he needed my labor after he retired from the service, he’d yell for me and say he required my strong back and weak mind. We re-roofed a barn that’s now falling down and fixed the carburetor on the Plymouth Fury I drove in high school, a beast of a car older than me, one he bought new and put into storage when we moved to Europe.
That car never ran right after we fixed the carb. Tended to stall and die all the time. But I’ll always remember doing that with him.
He was terrible on the phone but great at stories and jokes, and incredibly social when I was growing up.
My wife and son never really got to see him at full strength like that.
So this isn’t for my father, who’ll never read it.
This is for Pam.
This is for my brother Nate, for my wife and son.
And it’s for me, to remember that he was a soldier, a father and will always be Santa Claus.
That’s when fighting stopped during the Great War, the War to End All Wars.
And it’s why we celebrate Veterans Day on Nov. 11, whatever day that falls on the calendar.
I grew up on Air Force bases in New York, Washington, Germany, the Netherlands, so I know a bit about the sacrifices vets and their families make. You don’t sign up for the military for the money, or the hours. You do it for unselfish reasons. To serve.
So for all the veterans out there, including my dad (Vietnam), grandfather (bomber pilot, World War II), uncles and friends who served with honor and distinction, we salute you, even though most of us would probably do it wrong.
And we thank you. Always.
Also: Kudos to the students at Issaquah High School who made this video. You clearly put a lot of time and energy into it, and that emotion comes through.
So I’m driving on the Autobahn from Frankfurt, Germany to Goze, Belgium on zero sleep for about 36 hours, which is not the wisest thing in the world when you’re going 160 kilometers per hour, seeing how closing your eyes and napping for half a second will be fatal.
But I do not nap, and the Citroen of Itty Bittiness does not slam into the guardrail and burst into flames.
Frankfurt is a big city full of skyscrapers, the Manhattan of Germany, and this is because after World War II, cities razed by bombs had citizens vote: (a) bulldoze the rubble and start over or (b) rebuild on the ancient, narrow cobblestone streets and painstakingly restore all that was destroyed.
The people of Frankfurt picked “start over.” And you can tell, with just a glance, how any random city in Germany voted after the war.
Goze, Belgium was not bombed to rubble during the war. It’s a tiny little town full of brick homes and brick business and stone churches.
If you’re not familiar with Belgium, let me give you a primer:
The Netherlands (Holland) is to the north, Germany to the east, France to the south and Luxemburg also hidden nearby, so people in the north speak Dutch / Flemish and those in the south speak French, though nobody really speaks German
Belgium is home to European parliament, NATO headquarters and 72 other important things, maybe because Belgium is friendly and has the best chocolate and beer IN THE WORLD
They are NOT French fries, but Belgium fries, invented right here, and the one thing that will make Belgium peoples unfriendly is to repeatedly ask for “French fries,” which I do not do
Just like three years ago, we stayed with my wife’s host family from when she lived here as an exchange student. I lived in Holland and Germany as a kid, so this whole area feels like home.
Battle of the beer: Germany versus Belgium
There’s a huge difference between Germany and Belgium when it comes to beer.
Back in 1516, a German king got tired of people going blind, getting sick or dying from moonshine and bad beer.
This king wrote the Reinheitsgebot (food purity laws), which said the only ingredients allowed for beer were water, barley and hops. He also set the price of beer and standardized things. Today, you can also use yeast, which is quite important, though they didn’t know about yeast back in 1516. Also: wheat malt and cane sugar. But you can’t use unmated barley anymore. NOBODY KNOWS WHY.
The Germans do a lot with those few ingredients. I drank many beers in many towns. Despite the lack of variety, they were all smooth and good.
HOWEVER: Belgium crushes Germany into powder when it comes to beer, because they have 250 different beers that are all excellent. Want a chocolate beer? Done. An IPA with hot chile peppers? They probably have it.
Belgium also has trappist ales — beer made by monks — with many recipes unchanged for almost 1000 years, which is longer than Joan Rivers has been alive. Chimay is probably the most famous. If you haven’t tried Chimay, hit Trader Joe’s and buy some. The stuff is as smooth as silk. If your lips ever touch a can of Budweiser again, you’ll spit it out and say, “Put it back in the horse.”
Things to do in Belgium
The country is small, flat and pretty, with all kinds of beautiful old villages and green fields. Do you like riding bicycles? Ride all over the place with a camera and a picnic basket. Go crazy.
It’s one of the friendliest places, too. People greet you with three kisses (right cheek, left cheek, right cheek) when they first meet you and one kiss whenever you see them again or say goodbye. This is much, much better than standing around or an awkward handshake. Everybody does it, and this breaks the ice.
Also helpful: everybody is handing out beer and wine like it’s going out of style, though they don’t binge. I never saw anybody staggering around, drunk out of their mind. They are professionals with the alcohol, and drink slowly and steadily rather than breaking out beer bongs and losing their heads like a college freshman who’s just discovered Bud Light comes in keg size.
So: ride around the countryside, meet people – and have dinner, which is not 20 minutes at the dining room table while people play with their iPhones. Dinner is a big social event that takes hours. Breakfast is a social event. Also, lunch.
Basically, people in Belgium prefer the company of OTHER PEOPLE rather than televisions, iPhones and romance novels involving men in kilts.
This is refreshing and fun, despite the fact that I don’t speak a lick of French — because the secret is to listen rather than talk. In Iceland, Sweden, Belgium, France, Germany and elsewhere, people tended to talk to me in Icelandic, Swedish, French or German, as long as I (a) walked around like I knew what I was doing and (b) didn’t say anything.
This came naturally from being a kid in Germany and Holland, and from not speaking at all except to my sister for many years. She was my diplomat: “Guy is hungry for breakfast” and “Guy wonders if we can paint the dog white” and “Guy has just declared war on Syria.”
Over in Europe, I walked around not saying anything, pointing at stuff I wanted to buy and handing over monies. This works great. Try it sometime. If they ask, tell them Guy sent you, and that in solidarity, you also are cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria.